At the eastern end of Barn 28, in the stall marked No. 15, Omaha Beach stood staring toward the strangers clustered in front of him as if nothing had happened.
The Kentucky Derby’s morning-line favorite had been scratched from the biggest race of his 3-year-old life, sidelined by an entrapped epiglottis, but the considerable anguish that had caused his connections had no visible effect on the horse.
He turned his head this way and that. He scraped his bedding with his right front hoof. With no feed within reach, and no humans trespassing on his turf, Omaha Beach could be found fidgeting at 6:27 p.m. Wednesday evening at Churchill Downs.
His owner, Rick Porter, admitted to being “devastated.” His jockey, Mike Smith, said he was “disappointed,” but more for trainer Richard Mandella than for himself. The 68-year-old Mandella, still seeking the capstone victory of a Hall of Fame career, was trying to maintain a stiff upper lip and talking about “a whole new game plan.”
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?: How scratch of Omaha Beach impacts Derby
Thoroughbred racing can be a cruel sport, even when the horses do not die. A man devotes his life to a profession where disappointments are daily and devastation a recurring development, only to reach the cusp of a crowning achievement and have it suddenly snatched away.
This was the third time in a decade that the morning-line favorite had been eliminated within days of the Derby, following the late scratched I Want Revenge (2010) and Uncle Mo (2012). And considering the individuals involved, the heartbreak was compounded.
To have encountered the amiable Mandella this week was to empathize with him Wednesday night. A trainer only has so many chances to win the one race all of America appreciates, and Mandella was as close to realizing the dream of all in his field as he may ever come. Omaha Beach was made a 4-1 favorite after post positions were drawn Tuesday morning, and his most recent races and workouts had been so authoritative that he seemed almost destined for the garland of roses.
Last month, he defeated Bob Baffert’s Improbable to win the Arkansas Derby. In March, he had beaten Baffert’s Game Winner to win the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. And as if to turn the knife protruding from Mandella’s soul, Mike Battaglia’s updated Derby odds showed Game Winner as the new 9-2 favorite, with Improbable and Roadster co-second choices at 5-1.
UPDATED ODDS: Game Winner becomes new Kentucky Derby favorite
“We made a lot of plans,” owner Rick Porter lamented as reporters clustered around a mobile phone set on speaker. “First of all, Mike Smith and I are good friends and we were going to have to tell Mike Smith and that devastated me. You know, all my family was coming for the first time for the Derby. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe this had happened, but it did.”
And Mandella? How had he taken it?
“I think worse than I did,” Porter continued. “He was so excited that he had a horse he thought was this good, was going to be the one chance to break both of our virginities (in the Derby). He was very upset. He just couldn’t believe this had happened.”
Omaha Beach’s connections had been aware of some inflammation in the colt’s throat as early as last weekend. After the horse had been treated with antibiotics and a steroid, they were encouraged that the problem had cleared up. But subsequent scopes indicated the entrapped epiglottis, and specialist Dr. Rolf Embertson was unable to remedy the problem Wednesday afternoon.
“They tried three or four times and (Embertson) said we’re going to have to do a little bit of minor surgery,” Porter said.
As if there is such a thing as minor surgery three days before the Kentucky Derby.
Reach Tim Sullivan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TimSullivan714.